You’ve known each other for a while, so it’s time to take your relationship status with chocolate from “just friends” to “in a relationship.” Find out how chocolate is made, get to know every kind on the sweetness spectrum, stock your recipe folder with must-try chocolate recipes and get the answers to some of your most burning (er, melting) chocolate questions.
How Chocolate Gets Made
It starts with the pods, which are usually hand-harvested from cacao trees when they’re about six months old. Next, their seeds (or beans) and the surrounding pulp are removed and left to ferment for up to seven days, which deepens flavor and removes bitterness. After that, the beans are dried and roasted to elicit their aroma, color and rich flavor.
Finally, the cacao beans are ready to be cracked open, revealing the flavorful nibs. Those nibs are finely ground to make chocolate liquor, which is actually a nonalcoholic liquid made up of two parts: cocoa butter (the fats) and cocoa solids (what ends up being cocoa powder). Sugar, more cocoa butter and any additional flavorings and ingredients (like milk solids or vanilla) are added to the liquor during a process called “conching.” There you have it, ready to be enjoyed in all its chocolatey forms.
How to Understand Chocolate Percentages
When you see a percentage on a chocolate bar — what does that mean? Percentage of what exactly?
That percentage is how much of the bar is purely chocolate liquor (both the cocoa butter and the cocoa solids). The remaining percentage is what’s been added into the chocolate — whether that’s sugar, milk, seasonings or other add-ins. One rule of thumb is the higher the percentage on a chocolate bar, the less added sugar there will be. While the FDA doesn’t have a specific definition of how chocolate percentages differ between semisweet and bittersweet, common percentages you may see on packaging include:
Semisweet: Around 60%
Bittersweet: Around 70%
All the Types of Chocolate, From Most Bitter to Sweetest
Chocolate comes in many forms and flavors (and sometimes what’s called chocolate isn’t even chocolate!). Discover what makes each so different and then try them in a recipe.
Cacao nibs are the bits of raw cacao found when a fermented, dried cacao bean is cracked open (before it’s been ground into chocolate liquor).
Choco-tip: These crunchy morsels aren’t sweet when right out of the bean but can be paired with other sugars — like dates — in recipes, which brings out their chocolatiness plus provides a satisfying texture.
How to use them: Add into smoothies (before or after, if you like a chocolate chip–studded feel), sprinkled on top of sweetened yogurt and mixed into your favorite energy bite and power bar recipes.
Try it in: Chocolate Date Energy Bites
Cocoa powder results from the leftover part of the cacao fat after it has been removed from ground cacao nibs, which are then pressed into a cake and pulverized.
Choco-tip: You might have noticed two kinds of cocoa powder called for in recipes: Dutch-processed and “natural.” Dutch-processed cocoa is treated to neutralize some of cocoa’s acid compounds while “natural” is simply the cocoa bean’s ground solids. You can typically use them interchangeably if your recipe doesn’t specify. The choice of Dutch-processed over “natural” has to do with the type of leavener your recipe calls for. Because “natural” cocoa powder is acidic, it’s usually paired with baking soda (a base and acid’s opposite), the reaction of which creates the bubbles your recipes need to rise. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is often paired with neutral baking powder (contains both an acid and a base), which creates its own chemical reaction — no acid needed from the cocoa powder.
How to use it: Almost every recipe that’s chocolate based uses cocoa powder, from chocolate cake to brownies to fudge. Cocoa powder can be used in savory recipes, too, especially as a rub on hearty red meats.
Try it in: Baby Back Ribs with Vibrant Winter Slaw
Unsweetened (Baking) Chocolate
Also known as bitter, baking or cooking chocolate, unsweetened chocolate is about 45% cocoa solids and 55% cocoa butter.
Choco-tip: Unsweetened chocolate has a chalkier consistency, so it’s at its best when melted with other ingredients like butter and cream.
How to use it: Unsweetened baking chocolate is often used in place of cocoa powder, especially in brownies. However you choose to use it, make sure your recipe calls for something sweet, too. Otherwise, you’re in for a bitter surprise.
Try it in: Cinnamon Chile Chocolate Brownies
This darker and bolder chocolate is usually labeled Bittersweet when it is around 70% chocolate liquor, and while it does have added sugars, it’s on the less-sweet side of things.
How to use it: Becausebittersweet chocolate is less sweet than semisweet, it works well in recipes that already have a lot of sugar to counterbalance the sweetness, like chocolate chip cookies and brownies.
Try it in: Whole Wheat Cowboy Cookies
A chocolate swaying toward the sweet end of the spectrum, semisweet is usually labeled as such when it contains around 60% chocolate liquor.
How to use it: If you’ve got a sweeter tooth, and bittersweet chocolate tastes too intense to you, semisweet is your go-to for cookies, brownies and chocolate chip banana bread. Semisweet chocolate also works well when the base recipe isn’t very sweet, like with scones or quick bread.
Try it in: Chocolate Mousse Tart
In this all-American favorite, milk and/or milk solids replace some of the chocolate liquor. Milk chocolate must contain no less than 10% chocolate liquor.
How to use it: A couple squares of milk chocolate on their own are good for a sweet snack. While it’s often a little too sweet to use in baking recipes, it makes a mean chocolate frosting for a classic birthday cake.
A pink-hued cacao with an almost tart flavor with hints of raspberry and lemon.
Choco-tip: It might look dyed pink, but ruby cacao has no added coloring. It starts with a specific kind of cacao bean that’s chosen for its brighter pink color and fruitier flavor. The beans are prevented from turning brown using a shorter fermentation time and the addition of citric acid.
How to use it: Experience this one in its truest form, like in bars from Wild Ophelia opens in a new tab or Chocolove opens in a new tab.
Because white chocolate contains no chocolate liquor, it (gasp!) isn’t actually chocolate at all. White chocolate is a creamy concoction made by combining cacao fat (no less than 20% of the total weight) with dairy ingredients that can include cream, butter and milk.
Choco-tip: A technique that’s starting to pop up in more and more recipes is caramelizing white chocolate. It involves baking white chocolate for an extended period of time at a very low temperature, which melts and darkens the chocolate, giving it a nutty, butterscotch-like flavor, as well as tempering some of the sweetness. Once it’s cool, you can chop it and use it like you would regular chopped chocolate.
How to use it: Don’t sub white chocolate in for regular chocolate. Find recipes that specifically call for it — and make sure you’ve got the real stuff, not candy melts or coatings. Try it studded in blondies.
Try it in: Butternut Squash Blondies with White Chocolate Chunks
All Your Chocolate Questions, Answered
Now that you’re an expert on all the various types, it’s time dig in on chocolate a little further. Find answers to all those things you’ve always wanted to know to get the best out of your bars.
Is chocolate good for me?
That’s complicated. Research is far from certain, but what we do know is chocolate contains polyphenol antioxidants, which some studies have connected to the cardiovascular system. Cocoa beans also contain flavonoids (like those found in tea and red wine), which have been linked to cholesterol levels but many of them may be removed during processing. Finally, consider that there are so many different types of chocolates processed in different ways, with the possibility that they have many added ingredients that aren’t touted for their health benefits. And as is always the case with sweet treats, everything in moderation!
Is chocolate vegan?
Some are! Look for chocolate made only with cacao beans and chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and sugar, none of which are animal based. Be sure to always check the chocolate’s label to confirm that it is in fact vegan, because some chocolate brands will add milk products or other non-vegan ingredients. Steer clear of milk chocolate, which is made with milk solids.
What is chocolate “bloom”?
Improperly stored chocolate often develops white or gray "blooms" on its surface; they form when cocoa butter crystals within the chocolate bar have melted and migrated to the surface of the chocolate. This won’t spoil the taste but expect it to impair the texture.
What’s the best way to store chocolate?
Wrap chocolate tightly, preferably in its original wrapping, and store it in a dry place at about 65°F to 70°F. Chocolate easily absorbs odors, so make sure to store it away from any items that might impart strong aromas. When stored properly, most chocolate has a shelf life of more than one year. When in doubt, always check the packaging for expiration dates.
What’s the best way to melt chocolate so it doesn’t burn?
In order to melt chocolate properly, use gentle heat (115°F or less) to avoid scorching it. Here are two simple ways to get the job done:
Double Boiler Method: Put chopped chocolate into a double boiler or heatproof mixing bowl set over a pot of gently simmering water and stir gently until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. (Make sure the bowl doesn’t touch the boiling water or the chocolate may burn.)
Microwave Method: Heat chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl at half power, stopping to stir it gently every 30 seconds, until completely melted and smooth.
What is tempering chocolate, and when does it matter?
Tempering is what gives chocolate a shiny, smooth finish — like the confections you might see in our Bakery department. To temper chocolate, melt 2/3 of your total amount in a bowl over simmering water, stirring constantly, until it reaches a temperature of 100°F to 115°F. Remove the bowl from the heat, and stir in the remaining chocolate a little bit at a time until the chocolate has cooled to 82°F. Place the bowl back onto the simmering water and reheat to 88°F (for dark chocolate).
If you’re baking with chocolate, there’s no need to temper it. If you’re making something with a chocolate coating, like a chocolate-dipped strawberry, and you want to have a professional finish, you could temper the chocolate if you like — but it will still taste good if you don’t.
I only have semisweet and my recipe calls for bittersweet. Can I swap them out?
Definitely! Just know that if you’re swapping in semisweet, your recipe will end up being a little sweeter, and vice versa. You can even do a combo — chocolate chip cookies especially benefit from a mix of different cocoa percentages.